TO RACE THE WIND

By Karen Mason-Richardson


Sunday mornings in the tunnels were usually quiet. It was a time to catch up on personal things, a time for quiet reflection, a time for family. Father's library was no exception to this unwritten rule. Usually the favored spot for meetings, planning sessions, and debates, Sunday mornings found it a much calmer place.

"Well, it's about time you were up. Honestly, Vincent, I realize how much your time with Catherine means, but can't either one of you be more conscious of the hour?" Father removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes tiredly.

Vincent suppressed the urge to roll his eyes and descended the steps. Really, he shouldn't let Father irritate him so. It was an unfortunate fact that while Vincent was above, Father did not sleep well. But from the time that he was a little boy he had always despised that tone of voice. Now, well into his thirties, he still found it... irksome. "I wasn't aware I had a curfew."

"Ahhhh. Crabby this morning, are we? You know a decent night's sleep does wonders for that condition." With a self-righteous snap Father shook open the International section of the Sunday Times, replacing his glasses imperiously.

The smell of hot tea wafted through the room underscored by the flour tang of raisin biscuits. Traditionally William's morning off, Sunday's breakfast consisted of whatever baked goods had been cobbled together with ingredients on hand the day before. Simple, but filling.

Crossing the room to the sideboard, Vincent didn't even try to suppress the huge yawn that fully exposed long fangs. Maybe Father did have a point. Was he getting old? Slowing down? It didn't seem so long ago that he could stay up half the night and still manage to be alert the next day. Of course, thinking back to last night, he had a right to be tired... It had been three in the morning before he had left Catherine's bed. His body still resonated with wonderful, relaxed satiation.

Fetching his tea, he added the usual liberal dose of sugar before taking his seat across from Father. The heavy wood table was littered with folded newspaper. It was the Sunday morning ritual, reading the Times together. Each had his favorite sections and enjoyed this quiet time. Setting his tea carefully aside, Vincent began riffling through the discarded sections, searching for Arts and Entertainment.

There it was, underneath Sports, Father's favorite. Not many people knew that Father was a baseball fan. When he had lived above he had attended games as often as funds permitted and he still checked the Yankees' boxscores religiously. Shifting aside the Sports section, a small photograph near the bottom caught his eye. A young woman leaping a hurdle.

There was something familiar about that face, the expression in her eyes...

* * * * *

"Hoss! Hey, Hoss! Want a snack?"

Lynne automatically shied to avoid the thrown apple core. Cradling her book bag protectively she kept her head down, maintaining a steady walk across the parking lot. "Don't let them know they're getting to you. Don't pay any attention. That's what they want. Just ignore them." Her mother's words echoed through her mind as she tried to drown out the jeering horse-like noises and mocking laughter from the two boys leaning against the basketball net.

Eric and Chris, classmates and chief tormenters. They were the worst of the lot, the ringleaders. It would fade to bearable if they didn't go out of their way to maintain the constant harassment. She had quickly learned to avoid drawing attention. Learned that books were her best friends and imagination her escape. Hidden in her bag was her latest treasure - a new book from the school library, The Horse and His Boy, by C.S. Lewis. She could hardly wait to get home, to lock herself in her room and read.

Reaching the edge of the parking lot, she made her way down the cracked sidewalk, keeping her pace steady, resisting the urge to toss her head and run, at least until she was out of sight. Such behavior was only ammunition for the boys who watched, to be used against her in the most humiliating way they could think of. Finally she made the sharp right into the alley and stopped.

Shoulders straightened. Chin lifted. A foot rose and descended sharply, stamping the ground...

Merlin shook his mane, dark eyes scanning the green fields. The warm breeze slid across his silky black coat. A front hoof lifted with impatience, snapping down with an audible thump on the damp grass. Nostrils flared, drinking in the scents of trees and watery sunshine. With a shrill cry he reared and sprang forward. Muscular hindquarters bunched and flexed. Within five strides he had reached a full, flat out gallop.

There was nothing like racing the wind! The feel of your heart pounding, the thunder of hooves against soft turf, the coiled flex of surging muscles, the wind-driven whip of mane against your neck. Swinging around the last corner, there it was, the best part of the race. The fence. Almost three feet high and made of solid parallel poles. Ears cocked forward as he collected himself. At just the right distance, hind legs thrust, impelling the smooth arcing leap that was sheer joy.

That was freedom.

Panting like a bellows, Lynne slowed and trotted in a circle. Hair plastered to her forehead by sweat, she couldn't contain her snort of triumph. She glanced once more at the rusted chain link fence she had just leapt before heading for home.

* * * * *

"Mom, can we please get a horse?"

Her mother's tired sigh was audible over the sound of chopping celery. "How many times do I have to say this? You know we can't afford to buy you a horse."

>From the kitchen table, the newspaper cracked. "Damn it, Lynne! Where on earth would we keep the damned thing anyway? I'm sick and tired of hearing about horses! It's all you ever talk about and I've had it! I don't want to hear one more word!" With a dismissive snap, her father directed his attention back to the newspaper.

The disappointment was inevitable. Not that she didn't expect it, but a little part of her always hoped that today would be different. That this time, this time, her Dad would smile and say, "I'm glad you asked. See, I have a surprise for you." He would take her hand and lead her to the back door. There in the yard would be her horse. A magnificent black stallion that would love her and be her best friend. All the kids at school would be green with envy and Eric would try to be cruel. But she would laugh at them all and gallop away, faster than the wind. Because she wouldn't need them anymore, she would have Merlin...

>From the discarded newspaper sections on the kitchen table, a picture caught her eye. A horse, wild-eyed, mane tossing. A carrousel horse. The man holding a young child on its back was completely ignored. Lynne could barely tear her eyes from the photo to scan the text below.

"CENTRAL PARK CARROUSSEL REOPENS" Mayoral Candidate Mike Stanley and son enjoy the Central Park Carrousel. The popular family attraction, closed during the last month for maintenance, has its grand re-opening this Saturday.

Like a magnet the photograph drew her eyes once more, to study the proud, prancing black horse...

It was Merlin.

* * * * *

The music had been so loud, almost deafening to sensitive ears that were accustomed to tunnel quiet. Bright lights had flashed and the sounds of his friends' laughter had echoed through the enclosure. Beneath him, the carved wooden horse had swelled with the music and he had rocked with it, drunk on the sensation of freedom.

So long ago, that small taste of freedom. With such repercussions.

A sharp claw caressed the proud wooden neck as he leaned over the carrousel horse's back. Shiny black paint gleamed newness to any stray moonbeam that stole through the walls and glass bridle jewels winked conspiratorially at silver shod hooves.

Crisp and fresh. Like old memories dusted off to shine once more. For so many years the memories of this place had been shrouded in a gray pall of guilt and grief. Grief for a best friend, presumed dead for years. But Devin had returned and revelations at this carrousel had returned him as a brother.

In truth, he had not been able to resist revisiting this bright memory. Bright like this wooden horse, colors restored to vibrancy in just a few short days.

The squeak of footsteps on damp grass tore him from the warmth of memories. Footsteps close by, approaching and halting at the entrance.

That door was the only opening in the maintenance enclosure. The only escape.

"No..."

The soft voice of a girl, rife with despair...

* * * * *

The only door was locked, secured by a length of chain and a padlock.

No! Not after she had come so far, taken such chances!

Sneaking out of the house hadn't been difficult. Neither of her parents would even suspect she would do such a thing. She was never a problem, seldom disobedient. Well, except for reading with a flashlight after bedtime. She had almost been caught at that transgression several times but had always managed to hear the approaching footsteps, snap off the light, and hide the book under her pillow.

Getting past Chris and Eric had been a different story. They had still been out, hanging around on the street corner. Startled, heart pounding, she had faded back into the shadows and taken another route to the park. They hadn't seen her.

But to have come all this way to find the horses shut away! The plywood enclosure hadn't been in the photograph! Frustrated, she gave the door a hard push.

"Ouch!"

A heavy rattle of metal accompanied the blow to her foot. Shying away, she sent a startled glare at the length of chain and heavy padlock, now fallen to the damp grass. Crouching down, she fingered the chain, discovering the broken link almost immediately. As if in answer to her frustration the door, now devoid of its lock, swung lightly on its hinges, moving with the light breeze. Stepping forward, she slowly nudged it further open to scan the dark interior, listening intently.

Dark shadows. The creak of wood in the spring night's breeze. "Hello? Is anyone in here?" Nothing. No answer, no movement. Holding her breath, she slipped inside and pushed the door closed behind her.

There were so many of them! Some light seeped through cracks in the wooden walls, barely enough light to see. But the horses, so brightly colored, were still visible. Carefully she stepped up onto the carrousel floor and threaded her way between the gaily-caparisoned steeds. White and dappled gray, golden palomino and soft chestnut, the colors and barding were a muted rainbow of possibilities. Her hands trailed over tasseled saddles and flared nostrils. She was halfway around the circle when she found him.

Merlin.

Frozen in mid-leap, black mane tangled by wind, he was everything she had ever imagined. His bridle's sapphire jewels shone gray-blue in the scant light. Silver shod hooves gleamed as he raced the desert wind.

Slowly, she reached forward, to stroke that proud arched neck.

* * * * *

The girl had gone to his horse. Directly.

She hadn't detected his presence. Of course, one did not think to look for possible danger above them. When she had shaken the door and dislodged the chain he had broken, he had leapt up to hide in the rafters. As long as the machinery did not engage he should remain undetected here, at least as long as she didn't look up. The horse she had chosen was directly beneath him.

Absolutely still, Vincent watched as the girl stepped into the stirrup and swung up into the saddle. Ignoring the pole, she reached forward as if to grasp imaginary reins and her legs kicked once against the horse's sides. Eyes closed, her breathing quickened.

She sat on the horse for what seemed like hours. The narrow poles he lay across pressed hard against his thighs and midsection, and he could feel his left leg beginning to go numb. At last she stirred and opened her eyes.

* * * * *

It wasn't working.

Nothing had changed. The dark carrousel hadn't become a wind-swept plain. The horse beneath her hadn't become warm, vibrant flesh, but remained cold, hard wood.

It wasn't real. It would never be real. Just illusion, a gaily painted and wonderfully enticing dream.

She would not cry. Crying did nothing but make you feel bad.

Slowly, she dismounted. The scant light glanced off the silver saddle and wild dark eyes. Eyes that seemed to look right at her, begging to race the wind. Eyes that lied.

"You're not real! You'll never be real, just a dumb old wooden thing! How could I be so stupid? Stupid!" Angrily, she pushed against the proud black head. The wooden horse rocked a couple of inches and impassively returned to its post.

With a gasping sob, Lynne turned away. It had been a wonderful dream. But inevitably all her dreams ended and she was faced with reality once more. The bleak reality of each tomorrow, with the same inescapable fear of humiliation and the constant loneliness of being different.

"Hey, Hoss, you in there?"

Oh God! They had seen her after all! Panic stripped her of thought...

* * * * *

Beneath him, Vincent saw the girl stiffen. He had heard the approaching footsteps, and hoped it was a patrol officer or parent, come to take the girl home. Obviously it was neither. Fear exploded in a shock wave as she whimpered and pressed back against the horse. Fear so strong, he could feel it.

"Hey, Chris, watcha doing?"

"I think I heard her in here. Look, the chain's off."

The second voice touched off another palpable wave of panic as the girl scrambled around the horse to crouch behind it. The center of the carrousel was between her and the door, and she scuttled back into the darker shadow. His sensitive ears could hear her panting as she tried to make herself as small as possible. But there was nowhere to hide.

A wedge of light widened as the door swung open.

Knowing he shouldn't, but unable to not help, Vincent spared a moment to be thankful he had worn gloves tonight. A silent shake of his head swung his cloak hood down to further conceal his features and he lowered his arm.

"Up here. They won't see you. Get up on the horse and take my hand!"

The girl jumped, squeaking in terror. Eyes flashed in the darkness as she looked up for the first time, and widened as she located him.

"Hear that? I told you, she's in here."

"Yeah...Hey, Hoss, wanna go for a ride?" The young male voice reeked of confidence, a mocking dangerous drawl.

* * * * *

Shadows slid along the wooden walls, drawing her attention from the stranger in the rafters. The hollow echo of footsteps sounded on the carrousel floor, a slow menacing cadence. In a few seconds they would come around the circle and find her. And then...

Her decision was made in a flash of refocused panic. Scrambling as quietly as possible, she climbed up onto the horse to stand on its back and reached up, grasping the stranger's gloved hand. Immediately she felt her feet leave the saddle as she was lifted up to the rafters. The black shadow motioned for her to be still.

Still! She couldn't move! She couldn't even breathe...

"You're an idiot! There's no one here!"

"I'm telling you, Eric, I heard something. She's got to be here, hiding somewhere."

"Maybe it was just a rat."

"Fer chrissakes, I'm not deaf! I know what a rat sounds like."

"Well I can't see nothin', man. I told you, she went the other way. Screw this."

"All right, all right, damn it! I'm coming."

They were leaving! The door swung shut, plunging the enclosure into darkness once more. After several minutes of tense, trembling silence, she felt the dark form beside her shift.

"They're going away now. Are you all right?" The soft whisper, calm and confident, was like a balm to still screaming nerves.

Ohhh boy. She would be all right. Maybe. Once her heart stopped pounding like a jackrabbit's and she felt she could breathe again. Delayed relief shivered through her as she took a deep breath at last.

"Yeah... I guess."

Beside her the black shadow shifted and lowered itself to the floor. She caught a brief glimpse of light eyes beneath a deep hood as he glanced up at her.

"Grab the beam and lower yourself. I can reach you to bring you the rest of the way down."

A different kind of fear swam to the surface now. A fear engendered by a childhood full of warnings about strangers...

"Don't be afraid. I promise I won't harm you, just help you get back down."

Well, she was at his mercy now. If she refused to come down, he could just come back up and get her. Reluctantly she followed the stranger's direction. Large gloved hands caught her waist and, seemingly effortlessly, lowered her to her feet.

He had turned his head so she hadn't been able to see his face. Fading adrenaline left her with legs of rubber and she swayed. "Are you sure they're gone?"

"Reasonably sure. I can't hear them any more."

She turned and leaned across the back of the black horse with a gusting sigh of relief.. "Thank you. They would have caught me and with no one around they..."

"They what? You know these boys? They've harmed you before?"

"Oh yeah. I know them. More than I'd like. Except for some small stuff they've never physically hurt me, but there's always been a teacher or someone else around. Or they couldn't catch me." The dark form didn't move, just stood there waiting. "They hate me."

"For what reason?"

"Reason? God, I don't know! If I knew, I'd stop it. I've never done anything to them! Nothing! My Mom says it's because I'm smart and that makes them feel stupid. I don't know about that, I'm not really a brain I just read a lot and know a lot of stuff. I don't know why they picked me to torture." Reaction was setting in, trembling relief replaced by familiar, humiliated anger. "I don't deserve this!"

* * * * *

The pain in the young girl's voice pieced through him, shaking his empathic sense with its jagged edge. That pain was a very familiar companion.

Those boys were out there somewhere, and there was a good deal of park to traverse for her to reach the streets once more. He would follow her to ensure she reach at least the park boundaries safely. She was shaking...

"Do you like horses?" she whispered. Her voice was steadying as she calmed. He would wait a few minutes for her to settle before escorting her from the building.

"I suppose. They're not something I really think of. My class read Black Beauty some months ago. I've seen the police riding horses in the park. And ridden the carrousel. That's my only real exposure to horses. I take it you do like them?"

"Yeah. I love them."

"Why?"

The young girl paused to consider his question. "Because they're everything I'm not. They're beautiful and graceful. They're fast. They can run so fast that, if you're the rider, no one can catch you. I wish I had my own. He would be my friend. He wouldn't laugh or throw things. He would understand."

She was so lonely! A soul-deep crying need for understanding, for comfort. A need that poured from her and echoed his own. He did understand, more than she could know. "I know your pain."

"Yeah, right."

"I do. Believe me. I know what you feel. I do understand." He could feel the rasp in his voice as words were forced over a tight throat. Silence fell as the girl absently smoothed her hand along the black horse's neck.

"Do you ever feel different? So much that everyone else seems like a different species?"

Vincent froze at the question. She hadn't seen his face, had she? "Why do you ask?"

"I guess because, at school, I have nothing in common with the other kids. I don't know how to relate to them. The other girls just simper over boys, or worry about what kind of shoes or brand of jeans everyone else is wearing, or which rock star is the cutest, or who likes whom. Stupid things. I can't understand how they live like that. I have whole worlds in my head that no one knows about, and I can't talk about them because it makes me look even weirder. Sometimes..." The girl's impassioned whisper faded. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't dump on you like this."

Vincent turned to lean over the back of a wooden horse. This girl's pain was, in a way, a mirror of his. The pain of being different, of not fitting in. "It's all right. I know these feelings, too." Oh, yes, he understood well.

"Really?"

"Yes." Worlds in your head. Seeing and hearing things that others could not, and hiding the fact so as not to draw attention to his differences. Molding instinctive reactions into behavior that was unremarkable. Hiding your features and body...

"Don't you ever wish you were something else?"

Something else. A normal man. A man who could take Catherine to dinner and the theatre, who could walk openly down city streets in the sunshine and buy her ice cream. "Yes. Often."

"I wish I was a horse. I can imagine it so clearly it feels real. I run and it's like I am a horse. Fast and strong. And I feel...

"Yes?"

"I feel free."

"Running so fast, you feel like flying."

"Yeah!" The girl gripped the horse's pole and leaned back, swinging lightly from side to side. "But it'll never happen. The horse thing, I mean. I'll never get my own. My parents don't have much money and anyway there's nowhere to keep one in the city."

"It hurts to know one's dreams can never be." His voice was tinged with sadness, with the knowledge that his own dreams must remain that. Just dreams.

She was calmer now. It was time to leave, before she refocused and became curious. "I think those boys have gotten far enough away. You had better make your way home."

"I suppose." Nervousness tightened her voice and her neck tensed from its relaxed backward droop.

"You're worried. Don't be. I'll watch for them. You'll make it to the edge of the park in safety."

With a deep breath, she pulled herself upright. Squaring her shoulders, she turned to face him. "Ok."

* * * * *

Clouds were coming in and the moonlight would soon be obscured. The dark stranger, who had proved himself a nameless friend, stood in the shadow of the trees, watching to make sure she left the park safely. The exit was just ahead at the end of the chain link fence. Feeling more confident, she walked across the silvered grass.

Funny how, even though she had neither seen his face nor learned his name, she felt more kinship with the stranger than she had ever felt with anyone else. He was right, though. It did hurt to give up a dream, but sometimes you had to. Turning, she gave a brief wave of thanks in his direction before resuming her course.

"There she is! Hey, Hoss!"

Her heart slammed painfully as the hoarse shout pierced still night air, and she spun. From behind her and to the left, two lean figures raced across the grass towards her. To the right was the fence. From the corner of her eye she caught a gleam of light colored hair, as the stranger broke from the trees. Too far away - they'd get to her first!

The wolves bayed with triumph as they closed the distance to their prey. Spinning, the black stallion gave a shrill scream of anger. With an explosive surge, he leapt away, reaching a flat out gallop within seconds.

Five strides and he reached at the fence. A huge stonewall, solid and unforgiving. A mistimed leap could cripple him, leaving him at the mercy of his hunters. Power was transformed from forward to up as all his strength propelled him into a great arcing leap. A last minute desperate twist of his hindquarters and the top of the wall passed beneath him. His knees almost buckled on landing, a heavy grunt forced out at the impact. A quick scramble and, balance recovered, he galloped away. Gaining distance, a swift glance backward showed the wolves pinned against the fence by a huge dark shadow. In an instant, the frustrated howls of the pack were supplanted by yelps of fear as they faced another, more dangerous predator...

Lynn trotted in a circle as she watched Eric and Chris run screaming from the dark stranger.

"Wow. I sure wish I knew what he said to them to make them run like that!"

* * * * *

Vincent watched the boys flee, giving a last bared-fang snarl as one glanced back in terrified disbelief. Turning, he saw Lynn slow and run in a circle, giving him a last wave before continuing to jog across the street.

He reached forward to rest his hands on the fence. The solid chain-link couldn't be less than four feet high and he had just seen a slip of a girl, eyes flashing and long hair flying, leap it as if she bore wings...

* * * * *

The memory unfurled as his finger lightly caressed the photograph. Such an interesting conversation... for both of them.

'It hurts to know one's dreams can never be.' He had said those words to her, convinced that his dreams could never be. In his case, he had been wonderfully mistaken.

There were necessary compromises to those dreams. True, he couldn't take Catherine to dinner and the theatre. But last Friday night they had shared dinner and the theatre. Granted dinner was take-out Chinese and the theatre a video of Madame Butterfly, a change in details only. They couldn't walk down Fifth Avenue in the sunshine and eat ice cream, but they had sat on the floor of her balcony on a sunny Saturday afternoon and enjoyed a small container of something called "Hagen-Daz". Wonderful stuff.

Did he still wish to be something else? Sometimes. Everyone did, at some point or another. It was just... human nature. But at last he could say, truthfully this time, that he really didn't regret what he was.

Refocusing on the newspaper once more, he lowered his gaze to read the caption.

"CENTRAL STUDENT WINS GOLD - Lynne Donaldson, a participant in Central High's Athletics Incentive Program, won gold in Saturday's 100 meter hurdles at the New York State High School Track and Field Competition. Story, page D-11."

She looked a bit older. Taller perhaps, and more... filled out. But her eyes still flashed fire and her long hair, now caught in a single braid, streamed behind her as she raced the wind.

"Vincent?" Father's voice sounded, softly questioning.

"Mmmmm?"

"What is it? What has caught your attention so?"

A small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as he ran his clawed thumb once more over the picture.

"Freedom, Father... freedom."